Politico - Newburgh still awaiting broad outreach over water pollution

October 12, 2016

By: Scott Waldman

Excerpt: ALBANY — Tens of thousands of Newburgh residents have likely been drinking a toxic chemical for years, and possibly for decades, but there are no state or federal plans to conduct the sort of expansive outreach public health experts say is necessary to encourage local residents to get their blood levels checked to determine their level of health risk.

Public health experts say Newburgh residents, many of whom are probably not aware of the issue, need to be alerted to the fact that they have in their bloodstream a dangerous level of a chemical linked to cancer and other serious health problems. Thus far, the state’s outreach includes participating in “listening sessions” with local officials, mailing information on exposure to the chemical, PFOS, to local physicians, participating in two public forums in Newburgh and weekly calls with city officials, a Department of Health spokesman said.

The outreach does not include a broader education campaign to let the city’s residents know that they have been consuming a toxic chemical for an extended period of time. Of a city of 30,000, just 300 people have signed up for blood monitoring, according to state figures.

In May, Newburgh’s main water source, Lake Washington, tested at more than 140 parts per trillion for Perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, which is about twice the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended safety limit of 70 parts per trillion. The state has paid for the installation of a filter on the city’s water supply and switched the municipal supply to an alternate source months ago. ...

"It’s essential to conduct an advertising or education campaign as part of the community outreach so people at risk know about the dangers of having PFOS in their blood," said Dr. Howard Freed, a former director of the state health department’s Center for Environmental Health. Freed has been critical of the state health department for having a culture of downplaying health risks when the situation warrants greater public alarm.

“If you say, 'well we’ll do it, but we’re not going to tell anyone or we’re not going to advertise,' that’s kind of like not doing it,” he said. “I don’t see that as a good faith effort to find the people who are contaminated.”

"It is important that people have a sense of their exposure when it is highest so that they begin monitoring their health and that of their children for any changes," said Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist and public health researcher at the Silent Springs Institute, which studies the links between environmental contamination and human health.

She said it is also helpful to measure people’s blood levels around the time exposures are highest because it allows for future studies of health effects.

“Things like liver or kidney cancer might take many years to develop so we’re thinking about long-term health effects and it’s useful to have a measure of exposure back around the time when people were most exposed to contaminated drinking water rather than many years later trying to look back in time and figure out who was most affected,” she said.


Water Research